Three in one


Three in One – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Are you curious about God? Then, this chapter may give you much to think about. It takes you from a vague and mysterious sense of something awesome ‘out there’ to something more solid, to a relational Being. The Christian view of God is concrete and based on experienced evidence. John, one of Jesus’ followers, said it with these words.

‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.’ (1 John 1:1-3)

The term ‘Trinity’ is not common in our language. You may have heard it in names of Cathedrals and Churches. The Trinity is the distinctively Christian way of understanding God. All that is said about God in the Bible is held together by this concept. I doubt that Christian faith will make sense without it. And I hope that after reading this chapter you will agree with me that the concept of the Trinity is practical in that it safeguards the biblical view of God.

At the same time, you may want to join the many experienced Bible readers who acknowledge that the Trinity is a ‘mystery’.[1] Superficially, it seems to contradict common sense, and the manner in which the Bible teaches it requires deep and extensive study.

Although the word ‘trinity’ is absent from the Bible and no statement is found that clearly defines the concept, the Bible provides all the necessary elements for its formulation.

The understanding of God as three persons and yet one is present early in the church. Jesus and his first followers taught from the Hebrew Bible (‘the Old Testament’), where God’s oneness is fundamental: there is only one God and besides Him there is no other god.[2] At the same time, the Hebrew Bible pictures God as one who works out His purpose through His ‘Messiah’ (i.e. Hebrew for ‘Christ’) and His Spirit.[3]

The same emphasis on the oneness of God is found in the Greek Bible (‘the New Testament’).[4] In the concluding commission to His followers, Jesus mentions the baptism ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.[5] Not only does Paul use the Trinitarian formula in his letters,[6] but he writes in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6:

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’ (NRSV, italics supplied)

Recognizing that ‘Lord’ (kyrios) is a common title for Christ (verse 3), this passage builds on the threefold aspect of God, while underlining the unity of God behind the different gifts, services and workings that are manifested in the church. The unity and yet distinctiveness between the three persons of God is seen in Ephesians 2:18:

‘For through [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.’ (NRSV)

In this brief saying, the Father, Son, and Spirit are one in their purpose of bringing reconciliation and salvation to people. The ultimate goal of having access to the Father is achieved ‘through Christ by one Spirit’. In the same letter, in 4:4-6, we read:

‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ (NRSV, italics supplied)

We find here the three persons in the Trinity: ‘God the Father’, ‘the Lord’ (Jesus Christ), and ‘the Spirit’. Three distinct persons being related to each other. God the Father is God of all, above all, through all and in all. The Bible assumes a special relationship between the three, but it does not define exactly the nature of that relationship, except for their common purpose in the creation of the world and the salvation of lost human beings.

At this point, it would appear as if the Bible assumes and applies the concept of the Trinity but does not explicitly dwell on it. The oneness of God is clearly mentioned; the connection of the three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is also found several times; the unity between the Father and the Son, between the Father and the Spirit, and between the Son and the Spirit, is exposed in various ways.

The Trinity, therefore, functions as a conceptual tool by which all these elements are held together. It helps us understand and think of God in a unified way, while being true to the biblical revelation.

The concept suggests that within the one essence of God we are to distinguish three persons who are neither three parts nor three modes of God, but all are equally and eternally God. What matters in the Trinity are the relationships between the three: they are one.

We are looking at a kind of oneness which is not so much preoccupied with nature or substance. What can be said with certainty is that all three are divine in nature. The oneness is rather a matter of being one in spirit, in purpose, in will, and in the manner in which they work in complete unity in the creation of the world and in the salvation of man. They are unified while revealing themselves and working in the world with three different and yet interactive roles – the role of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Some Objections

Some people raise objections about the incompatibility of three in one, and others claim that the teaching of the Trinity implies three Gods. In my study of the Bible, I find that neither of these views does justice to the Bible. See what you think about it.

Firstly, the Trinity is not a question of mathematics. It is a way of talking of God in human language, although God is far beyond our comprehension. The phenomenon of several elements joined into one while retaining their individuality is not uncommon in our thought. We talk of one page with different statements on it. We talk of two individuals joined into ‘one flesh’ in marriage. We talk of many members of one body, whether in the church, families, football teams, or nations. The combination of collectivity (one) and individuality (several) is not unusual. God’s nature is one, but He reveals Himself to us in three persons.

Secondly, the Trinity is not an example of three Gods. This would contradict the biblical oneness of God and the unity that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What the Bible says is that there is one God only, that this God is one, in nature, in will and purpose,[7] but that He reveals Himself to us as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible puts major emphasis on their mutual relationship.

God in the Bible is a relational being who seeks a relationship with you and me. And you will find as we continue this study that the essence of God, the essence of the Trinity, is the relational quality of love – a unifying power of community between single and unique individuals. God created us as individuals with unique and individual power to be, think and act, but He also relates and communicates with us. You will find that the God of the Bible wants all people to ‘search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed He is not far from each one of us’.[8] This view of God is the foundation for the Trinity of God in the Bible.

The Biblical Evidence[9]

The Trinitarian understanding of God is not found expressly stated in the Bible. Rather, it is an important underlying feature without which some biblical statements are meaningless. What the Bible does say when it speaks of God has been summarized as follows: ‘The deity of the Father is simply assumed…that of the Son is affirmed and argued, while that of the Holy Spirit must be inferred from various indirect statements found in Scripture’.[10]

Your understanding of the Trinity of God will grow by placing it in the context of a progressive revelation of God in the Bible. The 66 books of the Bible were not written by one person at one time, but by several persons over a span of about 1,500 years. None of the books are written as systematic handbooks of divine teachings, but they were all written for different, specific, and practical needs of religious instruction. Not every detail was covered in each book. The biblical understanding of God shows a development towards the fullness of God found in Jesus Christ.

The oldest part of the Bible, commonly known as ‘the Old Testament’, emphasizes the unity of God: God is one.[11] But the mystery of God’s triune nature is being slowly prepared for later and fuller revelation. The Old Testament speaks everywhere of God the Father as the Almighty God and Creator. God’s Spirit is distinguished from God and is active for the same purpose as He is.[12] The Son of God is also present and active. For example, in Isaiah 48:16, the Lord’s Servant, who is the promised ‘Messiah’ (i.e. ‘the Anointed One’ or ‘Christ’) says:

‘From the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord God has sent me and His spirit’. (NRSV)

Three persons are mentioned here – the coming Messiah speaks of the Lord God, who sent Him, and of the Spirit, with whom He is sent. This brings us close to the concept of a trinity: the unity of God is combined with the complementary distinction that exists between the three Persons mentioned. The close relationship, the unity, between the three is the underlying foundation. Another very similar saying is found in Isaiah 42:1.

The evidence for the Trinity becomes overwhelming when we come to the New Testament, the last 27 books in the Bible, written in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost according to Acts, chapter 2.

The divinity and distinct personality of the Father, of course, was not in dispute.[13] That Jesus and the Father are two distinct persons is underlined in the many passages in which Jesus refers to the heavenly Father as ‘my Father’.[14] At the same time, there is a close and intimate relationship between the Father and the Son,[15] and between Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Jesus talked to His followers about ‘the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name’.[16] Many different relations – all involving the unity between the three – are being described in the Bible.[17]

The divinity of Jesus Christ was recognized by the early Christians. This is attested by the titles given to Him. They refer to Him as ‘God’[18] and often call Him ‘Lord’[19] or ‘Lord of all’,[20] ‘Lord of glory’,[21] ‘Jesus our Lord’,[22] ‘our Lord and God’,[23] or ‘Lord of Lords’.[24] Christ is celebrated as eternal,[25] uncreated and underived,[26] holy,[27] unchanging,[28] ever-present.[29] Like the Father, He is engaged in such divine works as Creation,[30] providence,[31] the forgiveness of sins,[32] resurrection and judgment,[33] and the final dissolution and renewal of all things.[34] Thus, God and the Son are equal but clearly distinguishable.

Now, what about the Holy Spirit? As you read the New Testament, you will be impressed by its constant teaching that the Spirit is a person. The Spirit does what only a person can do: He speaks,[35] teaches,[36] testifies,[37] commands,[38] intercedes,[39] reveals,[40] searches,[41] sends,[42] guides, leads and directs,[43] declares things to come,[44] and bears witness with our spirit.[45] The Holy Spirit can be lied to;[46] He can be insulted;[47] He can be blasphemed,[48] and He can be grieved.[49] The Bible writers obviously thought of the Holy Spirit as a person.

It is also striking that, while the original Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) is grammatically neuter, and pronouns connected to pneuma are normally in the neuter gender, the Spirit (pneuma) in the New Testament is referred to by pronouns in the masculine gender.[50] This may best be understood in the sense that the Spirit is not merely God’s power or a personification of it, but the individual personality of the Spirit is underlined. The Holy Spirit is here described as a person distinguishable from both the Father and the Son.

The way in which the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit indicates to us that He is God. He is all-knowing[51] and the works He does are God’s own works. It is the Spirit who spoke to the older generations through the messages of inspired men and women;[52] He bears witness to the truth that is in Christ,[53] strengthens the faithful believers,[54] convinces the world of divine judgment,[55] regenerates or gives new life,[56] sanctifies,[57] and grants the community of believers the gifts of ministry.[58] In Acts 5:3-4, ‘lying to the Holy Spirit’ is the same as ‘lying to God’. The Holy Spirit is seen as a divine person.

The writers of the books of the New Testament put the Holy Spirit on equal footing with the Father and the Son. Not only are Father and Son mentioned side by side as jointly worthy of worship and honour,[59] but in the same way the Holy Spirit appears with both of them as a personal source of divine blessing. All three persons are mentioned together as co-sources of the blessings of salvation.[60] The interrelationship among the three persons in the being of God is quite explicit:

‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’[61]

This was Jesus’ view, too, as we see in Matthew 28:19:

‘Go…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ (NIV, emphasis supplied)

This saying of Jesus is important, because it confirms the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by keeping them together as one single name, yet maintaining their distinctiveness by repeating the definite article ‘the’ in front of each of them. In fact, at Jesus’ own baptism, all the three persons of the Godhead are present and coordinated under the divine will (see Matthew 3:16-17).

Although some things remain a mystery, and the Trinity of God would require a much more detailed study than can be given here, there is strong biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit, too, is a person and is one with God.[62] In John 4:24 Jesus identifies God with the Spirit: ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

The Trinity of God functions in God’s work of bringing man back to Him. It comes alive in the testimony about Jesus by Christian believers. When Jesus sends out his followers to make Him known, their words will be given by the Spirit of the Father.[63] When you follow Jesus to come to God the Father, the Holy Spirit will ‘teach you everything, and remind you of all that [Jesus] said’.[64] His words within you will make the Trinity of God come alive in you. It is an experience that fills you with certainty and meaning.

What Does the Trinity Mean to Me?

The essence of God in the Bible is love: God is love.[65] Since love is a relational concept, the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is a loving relationship. Not much is being said about this aspect of God – it remains a divine mystery which we may understand intuitively and indirectly but which we may not be able to define in every detail. The Bible reminds us that ‘now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face’.[66]

Because of His love for the world, God revealed and gave Himself in Jesus Christ to save the world from death, evil and hopelessness.[67] This act of giving Himself up for others is described as the essence of humility in Philippians 2:5-11, where Christ ‘being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross’ (NIV). Christ’s humility and obedience is directed not only towards the Father but also to His own divine nature. This is an example of the love that characterizes the relationship between the three persons of God.

The Father sends the Holy Spirit to reveal the Son to each person: ‘When the [Holy Spirit] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf’.[68]  But again, God’s love is the unifying element: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’,[69] and we know that we abide in God and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.[70] The fruit of His Spirit in us is first and foremost love and all the following elements are expressions of God’s love: ‘joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’.[71]

The Trinity of God is applied in the Bible for the sake of telling us who God is, what He wants, and how He is behaving in order to bring His divine essence (His love) into our life. While we think of God as one God, we are enriched by relating to Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, knowing that the unity between the three persons of God is a divine model of relational unity. In God we find the unity that is to be manifested among ourselves – the unity of relational love.

The Trinity therefore helps you understand how you might relate to God. It shows you a God who is not only love but one who is actively engaged in sharing His love with you. The message of the Trinity is that ‘God is with us’ – He is not remote from or disinterested in anybody. The Trinity proves that He uses every possible avenue to reach the human heart in order to fill you with His divine essence. It demonstrates that His presence and His relationship with you is what matters to Him. The Trinity challenges you to trust Him and relate to Him.

As the Trinity reveals the love of God for you, it remains for you to determine how God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, will matter to you. This is a step of faith that only you can take. But the Trinity tells you that as you contemplate this, the Holy Spirit is working in you, the life and attitude of Christ is there before you as a model of what you may become, and the Father is eagerly waiting to embrace you as His child. Why refuse Him instead of experiencing His warmth and love?

[1] R. Dederen uses this term in his article: ‘The Mystery of the Trinity: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’, Adventist Review, 1993:26, pp. 8-11.

[2] Deuteronomy 4:35; 6:4; Isaiah 45:5; Zechariah 14:9.

[3] For example, Isaiah 11:1-5; 42:1; 48:16.

[4] Mark 12:29-34; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 2:5.

[5] Matthew 28:19.

[6] For example: 2 Corinthians 13:14.

[7] Deuteronomy 6:4; Romans 3:29-30; 1 Corinthians 8:4; James 2:19.

[8] Acts 17:27-28, NRSV.

[9] The material included in this section is based especially on R. Dederen’s article (op. cit.). See also J. Paulsen, When the Spirit Descends, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, 1977; R. Rice, The Reign of God: An Introduction to Christian Theology from a Seventh-day Adventist Perspective, Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1985, pp. 88-92; Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines, The Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, second edition, Silver Spring, MD, 2005, pp. 23-33; R.E.M. Clouzet, ‘Why the Personhood of the Holy Spirit Matters’, Perspective Digest, 12:2, 2007, pp. 4-19.

[10] M. Erickson, Christian Theology, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 873.

[11] Deuteronomy 4 :35 ; 6:4 ; Isaiah 45 :5 ; Zechariah 14 :9.

[12] Genesis 1:1; 41:38; Exodus 31:3; 1 Samuel 10:10; Isaiah 61:1.

[13] For example: 1 Corinthians 8:4, 6: 15:24.

[14] For example: Matthew 7:21.

[15] John 17:20-26.

[16] John 14:26, NRSV.

[17] See Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines (2005), pp. 23-33.

[18] For example: Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8.

[19] For example: Acts 11:16.

[20] For example: Acts 10:36.

[21] For example: 1 Corinthians 2:8.

[22] For example: 1 Corinthians 9:1.

[23] For example: Revelation 4:11.

[24] For example: Revelation 17:14.

[25] For example: Matthew 28:20.

[26] For example: John 1:1.

[27] For example: Hebrews 7:26.

[28] For example: Hebrews 1:12.

[29] For example: Matthew 28:20.

[30] For example: John 1:3, 10.

[31] For example: John 3:35; Colossians 1:17.

[32] For example: Matthew 9:1-8.

[33] For example: Matthew 25:31-46.

[34] For example: Philippians 3:21.

[35] Acts 8:29.

[36] Luke 12:12.

[37] John 15:26.

[38] Acts 16:6-7.

[39] Romans 8:26.

[40] Luke 2:26.

[41] 1 Corinthians 2:10, 11.

[42] Acts 13:2.

[43] Acts 8:29; 11:12; John 16:13.

[44] John 16:13.

[45] Romans 8:15, 16.

[46] Acts 5:3-4.

[47] Hebrews 10:29.

[48] Matthew 12:31-32.

[49] Ephesians 4:30.

[50] For example: John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13.

[51] 1 Corinthians 2:10-11.

[52] Acts 28:25.

[53] John 15:26.

[54] 1 Corinthians 6:19.

[55] John 16:8-11.

[56] John 3:8.

[57] 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2.

[58] 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

[59] For example: 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; Ephesians 5:5; 2 Peter 1:1.

[60] For example: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 1 Corinthians 12:4-5; Ephesians 2:18; 3:2-6.

[61] 2 Corinthians 13:14, NRSV.

[62] For further reading, see the references in note 5 above.

[63] Matthew 10:17-20, 32-33.

[64] John 14:26.

[65] 1 John 4:16.

[66] 1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV.

[67] John 3:16.

[68] John 15:26, NRSV.

[69] Romans 5:5, NRSV.

[70] 1 John 4:13.

[71] Galatians 5:22.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *